Cabaret Creep: Have we blown our fuse?

Three years ago I made a prediction in this post, titled “The New Face of Tribaret“.  I saw the “big name” dancers in the fusion belly dance scene starting to dance to more Arabic music, embracing cabaret aesthetics such as mermaid skirts and bedla, but in distinctly contemporary interpretations.  I’m not sure how much attention it garnered when I first wrote it, but I do believe that I was right on the money.

Last year at Tribal Fest 12, Rachel Brice and her Datura students, dripping in antique jewelry and assuit, performed (one of my favorite pieces of the weekend) to music from this album (along with other music)—Nadia Gamal: Music for an Oriental Dance—which is not at all music for Tribal Style belly dance… like, at all.  With Zoe Jakes’ Bhoomi Project, we have performed straight-up belly dance pieces, including one with finger cymbals, but with Zoe’s signature contemporary stylization and to music by her world-fusion electronica band Beats Antique.  The photos filtering in from TribalCon 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia, show a host of “tribaret” fusion costuming, with dancers in sequins, rhinestones, color, and (gasp!) showing lots of leg.  Even self-proclaimed dance “dinosaur” Yasmin Henkesh attended and performed Egyptian oriental style at 3rd Coast Tribal this year in Texas, indicating a blurring of the lines between “Cabaret” and “Tribal”.

A little personal aside: When I performed at TribalCon in 2010, I wore a “tribaret” costume, and danced to Arabic music: a qanun taqsim and a drum solo. At the time, I, too, was returning to my American Cabaret roots, but I also wanted my performance to reflect the workshop I taught at TribalCon that year which focused on the Salimpour legacy in tribal style belly dance, including the seminal Jamila Salimpour belly dance format.  I distinctly remember being a bit, well, misunderstood.  People said I was too sparkly, and thought it was odd that I would do a “cabaret” performance, especially at a tribal event.  Personally, I don’t think that performance was straight up “cabaret”; if it were, I would have danced to different music, such as, say, “Aziza” or “Habibi Ya ‘Aini”. But, as we all are, I was immediately labeled, and I believe that many of my followers felt I was betraying my “dark fusion” self for a happier, sparklier dancer (who was always there, but most people had not seen me dance in my earlier, more oriental days).

So, what does it mean that fusion and tribal-associated dancers are integrating more oriental elements into their dance and costuming?  Did the fusion trend burn itself out?  Did we stray so far from the roots of the dance that we felt so disconnected that we decided to pull back just a bit?

I have a theory that I haven’t really tested, and it’s two-fold:

1) Yes, tribal fusion as a whole went as far as it could, and that return is what we are witnessing, and will continue to witness for several years.  When we run out of glitchy electronica, wear holes in our Melodia pants, and pop and lock until we drop, we will either decide that Middle Eastern belly dance isn’t really what we were attracted to in the first place (we sought other things from the dance, such as an extended sisterhood or family, wearing beautiful costumes, or feeling secure in our bodies, all of which are valid reasons for seeking out any activity, but all miss the point that belly dance must be learned within a certain cultural framework) or we will seek out the roots and history of this dance form, cultural baggage and all. Which leads me to the second part…

2) I remember when tribal fusion really hit the national scene. The year was 2003. The United States had just invaded Iraq, and we still reeled from the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Our national relationship with the Middle East shifted in a huge way over the course of only a few years, affecting the Western world.  I believe that tribal fusion allowed many of us to have a limited emotional engagement with belly dance, an art so quintessentially Middle Eastern and yet so terribly misunderstood (dare I say like the region itself), on our own artistic terms.  Tribal in its essence is Western, and evolved from Western belly dancers, beginning in California, and eventually expanding within and beyond the fantasy-folkloric contexts of Renaissance faires and the Society for Creative Anachronism.  We, as a community, could take the elements of belly dance we wanted—the movement, the costuming, the community, and some of the music, while eschewing the elements we didn’t—the sexualization of the dance by non-dancers, the oxymoronic role of the belly dancer in Middle Eastern society, and the responsibility of representing a culture not our own.  Tribal fusion allowed us to belly dance on our own Western feminist terms: we wore a lot of black, didn’t show our legs, performed to lots of non-Arabic music (Indian and Balkan music, however, was acceptable, but Arabic music was “too cabaret”, and if we did dance to Arabic music, we would in a distinctly tribal fusion style) and called ourselves “dance fusion artists.”

Ten years later, September 11th has become a chapter in history books, and US troops have returned from Iraq.  The United States, no longer the hegemony it was, our economy a wreck, and the dollar weak, is not so intimately involved in the affairs of the Arab world (although, as I write this, President Obama is visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories, harkening back to the Clinton-era days of Camp David diplomacy).  And I believe that because of this geo-political shift, we belly dancers feel that we can step into the pool of Middle Eastern music and aesthetics, wearing bedla and cabaret-inspired costuming, performing to Arabic music, and learning Arabic oriental and folkloric stylizations.

Ultimately, we still want to express ourselves artistically and emotionally, and the proliferation of stage presence and theatrical skills workshops reflects that need, but I believe we can do so within the context of Middle Eastern music and movement.  I also don’t believe that this new trend is any way a step backwards, but rather a new branch in the evolution of the dance.  Those of us who associate with the fusion belly dance community don’t necessarily want to dance like they do “over there”; however, in order to express ourselves as belly dancers (as opposed to contemporary or interpretive dancers), we must train in various indigenous stylizations and understand Arabic music (which, in turn, means having an understanding of the culture and politics of the region).  I see the return to “tribaret” and the fascination with pre-Tribal belly dance as an exciting development, encouraging dancers to learn more about the origins of the dance so that we can continue to innovate and inspire future generations.

Source: Bellydance Paladin


Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.

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